NFL hot reads: Lions, not refs, deserve blame for loss
Snap reactions from the wild-card round of the NFL playoffs:
— Outrage over officials' decision to pick up a flag on Cowboys LB Anthony Hitchens late in the best game of the weekend obscured the reality the Lions still were in position to secure the franchise's first playoff win in 23 years. Then coach Jim Caldwell decided to take a delay of game penalty on fourth-and-1 and punt, Lions P Sam Martin shanked a 10-yarder out of bounds and the Cowboys marched 59 yards in 11 plays for the go-ahead touchdown – converting their second fourth-down try of the day along the way. Had the call on Hitchens stood, the ball would've been placed around the 30-yard line with 8:18 to go and Detroit up three. It was no guarantee the Lions would get in the end zone to make it a two-score game, though certainly the first down and the chance to chew more time off the clock would've improved their chances. So would converting that fourth down Caldwell passed on at the Dallas 46, trusting a punter who choked and a defense that took two penalties and let TE Jason Witten loose on fourth-and-6 to extend the deciding drive. Lions QB Matthew Stafford had his chance to play hero, too, but he lost two fumbles in the final 2:32. There was some contact both ways on the controversial play. The mechanics of making the call (and then taking it back) were a bigger factor in the blowback than the no-call itself. The bottom line is there was still time for the Lions to make a play – but they didn't, which is why they're going home.
— The idle Packers had to be in the rare position of rooting for a rally by the NFC North rival Lions, who would've faced the Seahawks in the divisional round as the lowest seed. Instead, the Cowboys hung on and are headed to Lambeau Field, while the Panthers – the clear underdogs remaining in the entire playoff field after Saturday's win over the short-handed Cardinals – head to Seattle. The Cowboys are far better equipped to pull an upset in Green Bay than Carolina, which got run off the field there in an October rout. Dallas is unbeaten on the road this season and has the type of run-first attack that can stress the Packers up front and keep the ball away from Aaron Rodgers … even if it'd be foolish to bet against the likely MVP in Green Bay, where Rodgers hasn't thrown an interception since 2012. Meanwhile, for as well as the Panthers played down the stretch (particularly defensively), the guess here is they'll be dismantled by a Seahawks team that, unlike Arizona, isn't reduced to starting a practice-squad quarterback. That would send the Dallas-Green Bay winner to Seattle for what either way looks like an epic NFC title fight.
— Three of the AFC's final four are the past three conference champions. Then there are the Colts, who lost on the road to the Super Bowl-bound Ravens and Patriots the last two years and this time get the Broncos. It's a rematch of the Week 1 game Denver won 31-24 on Sept. 7. And it'll be another coming-of-age test for QB Andrew Luck, whose ankle-bitten 36-yard TD toss to WR Donte Moncrief in Sunday's 26-10 win over the Bengals may be the throw of the year. Luck, 25, is the future of the most important position in sports. Beat predecessor Peyton Manning in Denver to reach the AFC title game, and it'd sure seem Luck is the present, too. He's as good as advertised and only getting better. But a Colts defense that has gotten by all season with its best player (OLB Robert Mathis) on the shelf has to get Manning off his spot to have a chance. It'll be a far bigger challenge than stopping a Bengals offense that wasn't the same Sunday with WR A.J. Green and TE Jermaine Gresham sidelined.
— Cincinnati's loss can't be pinned on QB Andy Dalton, but it did serve as a reminder of his limitations. For all the games the Bengals have won with him, Dalton can't elevate lesser players around him, as his team desperately needed him to Sunday. In four playoff games with Dalton at QB, the Bengals have scored 43 points total. Again, that's not all on Dalton. But continued futility in January lets questions linger about whether he's the guy to take the Bengals to the next level. The team paid him more than $18 million this year as part of a contract extension. In 2015, they owe him $7.2 million, including a $4 million roster bonus on the third day of the league year in March (none of it guaranteed). Similar questions could be asked about Bengals coach Marvin Lewis, who is 0-6 in postseason games after 12 years. In a league where consistency is elusive, it's hard to fire a guy with Lewis' regular-season track record. But if the mark of good coaching is the ability to make adjustments, it's disturbing that Lewis' teams have been outscored 84-13 after halftime in those six playoff losses. Four times, including Sunday, they've been shut out the final 30 minutes.
— Six of the past nine years, the Super Bowl winner has played on wild-card weekend. Who has the best shot this time? The Cowboys are the obvious pick if they can find a way to end the Packers' domination at Lambeau Field. Ditto the Colts if they pull the upset in Denver. But don't overlook the Ravens, who improved to 10-4 in playoff games under coach John Harbaugh after Saturday's handling of the Le'Veon Bell-less Steelers – the sixth time in as many chances they've won their postseason opener. That includes a 2-1 mark against the Patriots, who will host the Ravens again Saturday. Against all other opponents in Foxboro, Mass., Patriots coach Bill Belichick's record is 11-1.